Why Not Put Schools to the Test?

Article excerpt

Since early in America's history as a nation, education has been integral to our nation - a way of overcoming class and caste distinctions that, in other countries, prevent people from realizing their dreams and hopes through their intellect and energies. In terms of individual advancement, education is essential to opportunity.

For that reason, any attempt to conduct the education policy debate among "experts" alone is destined to fail as parents, lawmakers, and other civic stakeholders insist on making school business their business. Witness the current debate on the proper place of testing in American education, which in some instances pits parents and elected policymakers who support testing against a group of education experts who are skeptical and disparaging of what testing can determine.

Without question, the new emphasis on testing is linked to a larger cluster of reforms calling for more accountability on the part of school systems and school administrators. Almost without exception - and with a speed not often seen across a continent-wide school "system" that loosely connects 50 states and some 14,000 separate school districts - testing is gaining ground as the preferred tool by which to judge school achievement. The state-by- state trend toward standardized testing has been buttressed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which mandates that chronically poorly performing schools be closed and that school systems provide - and pay for - a better educational alternative.

Tests tell us what the problem is. US students perform comparably to their international peers in the early grades but steadily lose ground as they move up in age and grade. By high school, US student achievement ranks below that in almost all other industrialized commercial societies, despite per-pupil spending that puts the US near the top internationally. It's hard to resist the conclusion that something is wrong in America's schools - something that people who are active in civic life need to set right.

In the effort to hold schools accountable, tests constitute a critical tool that can help identify children with learning disabilities, judge the efficacy of chosen curricula, and suggest the degree to which educational products, programs, and practices are working. That information arms state and local school boards with the knowledge they need to make choices. …